The sudden hammering on the door jolts him awake. He doesn’t know for sure if it’s dawn or dusk. His upended sofa, his queen-sized mattress and box spring, his mother’s hutch block the loft’s only row of windows.
“Dan! It’s me.”
Val? No way. How could she make it through the city? He’s dreaming. But he never dreams anymore. Almost never sleeps. Not if he can help it.
“Daniel, open up.”
At the door, he wavers. Anyone might be a carrier, a host, the instrument of death. He glimpses through the peep-hole. Val’s chestnut hair is tangled, her face streaked with mud. She clutches his wedding picture, an armful of clothing, Darwin’s collar. He lets her in.
“They got Darwin?” he asks, locking the door behind her. Watching her. He still finds her beautiful. That long curve of neck still moves him.
“Ran away,” she says and darts around his new place like she used to dart around their apartment. She used to look for women. Now she looks for Chloratons.
“We’re going to the lab,” she says. “Dad says it’s safe.”
“Nowhere’s safe.” He doesn’t tell her he can’t face the danger. The devastation.
“Let’s go. Now.” Val’s eyes. Big. Dark. He reads something there he hadn’t expected to find.
He didn’t want to know how bad it was. And now he does. People fleeing in every direction, panicked by an enemy whose tiny size and almost noiseless stealth make surprise attack the common tactic. Human corpses obstruct doorways, hang from windows, clutter curbs. And the dying–curled where they’ve fallen–cry out as the Chloratons drill into blood and muscle with their needle antennae, each victim yielding up his precious treasure of deoxyribonucleic acid.
Val slaps Dan’s face. He wants to deck her, but she grips his arm with both her hands–the bundle of clothes, the photo, the dog collar dropped at their feet–and yanks him forward.
She stops. Swears. Spits out, “The car’s gone. Someone stole the car.”
Dan’s voice comes out in a rush. “We gotta go back.” He stumbles toward his building, but a woman twists through the front door onto the steps, ripping at her clothes, tearing at her skin. Val grabs his arm–“Let’s go. Let’s go. Let’s go!”–and he lets her drag him across the street and into the Factory where he used to drink Jack Daniels, straight up, most nights since Val kicked him out. That is until the waves of Chloraton war ships landed.
Light sputters dimly from sconces inside the saloon despite the crash of the city’s power grid. Orbital’s “Out There Somewhere” pings and pops from the radio. Carl, the bartender, is at the far end of the bar, hunched over, talking to some old alkie.
“Carl,” Dan calls. Waves his hand. Val bats it down.
“Stop!” she hisses. “Come on!”
He jerks away from her, pushes through upturned tables, knocks over chairs. Carl doesn’t look up. Neither does his customer.
Dan grips the bartender’s shoulder. It’s sharp, brittle. And then Carl turns toward him, but Carl isn’t turning. He’s tumbling to the ground. Dan reaches out, snaps back as Carl’s body hits the cement and shatters. Val’s there, whispering in his ear, “Come on, baby, come on. C’mon, C’mon, C’mon.”
She shoves him through what they both now realize is a battleground of human husks. Yet Dan has to suppress the urge to stop, to see if they too will shatter.
In the back room, Val finds the basement door and while Dan lurches down the stairs, she stays at the top, slamming the rotten door, sliding the rusty bolt, listening for the faintest shuffle of Chloratons in their wake.
Trembling, Dan struggles to hold himself together, tries not to see the woman on the steps of his building shredding at her flesh. Not to see the bartender’s splintered shards at his feet. Val tiptoes down. Wraps her arms around him, yet he’s still shaking. A generator vibrates nearby. He pulls away from her and kicks the machine into silence.
Val says, “We’re gonna be okay,” and pushes him behind barrels of beer, cardboard boxes, a metal table. Dan slides onto the damp cement and wonders why he hadn’t struck out across town to find Val. Why she had to come for him.
She brings a blanket and scrunches down next to him.
“They advance and retreat,” she says, meaning the Chloraton invaders. “Dad says it’s a matter of timing. We’ll wait a while, then head for the tunnels. It’s not too far. He has a car waiting.”
Dan says nothing. She snuggles in. Kisses his cheek. He feels ashamed.
When Val’s breath wakes him, Dan rests his lips against her forehead. It’s warm, smooth, smells like sweat. She stirs, moves closer to him. He loves her. He wants to save her, but how? The bartender didn’t fight against the invaders, staying where they found him, not moving, letting it happen. But the woman who ran from his building did fight. She tore her own flesh to get to them. But neither survived. Neither Carl’s acceptance nor the woman’s defiance proved strength against the enemy.
Val says, “Do you think they’ll come?”
Then she gasps, her fingers tightening around his arm. He listens. Hears the slightest purr on the stairs.
Their flimsy fort won’t repel the Chloratons. But a distraction might, a body manifesting itself at the front of their march could lead to a mindless frenzy. And leave enough time for someone to escape.
“Val,” Dan says, turning toward her. But she’s gone, the grip of her hand still tingling around his arm.
Beyond the barrels and cardboard, a faint shadow flicks by.
A sharp cry, a groan, and the sound of someone thumping to the ground.
Dan holds his breath and wonders how long before he can make his break for the tunnels.
Gay Degani is looking forward to a year more dedicated to writing than ever before.